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DINING OUT: Hunan House — Fiery take on Chinese eats in Flushing

Always drawn like a moth to a flame by the promise of an exotic or obscure ethnic cuisine, we hot−footed it over to Hunan House on Northern Boulevard in Flushing for some regional fare.

Hunan−style cuisine rivals the incendiary flavors of Sichuan. Both regions share a hot, humid climate and indulge in the practice of all tropical climes of using fiery spices to create both a sort of internal air−conditioning system and food−safety insurance. The difference between Hunanese and Sichuan cuisines is that the geography of Hunan is more hospitable to farming, giving the chefs access to a broader range of ingredients. The preparations tend to be lengthier and more complicated than Sichuan dishes, involving a lot of overnight marinating. Great attention is also paid to appearance as well as taste.

The Hunanese may set great store by the appearance of their food, but their eye for interior decoration has not caught up. They get a few extra points for some nice Chinese brush paintings hand done on recesses set into the walls, but the dazzling crystal chandeliers were seriously out of place in this basically no−frills setting. Happily, visual harmony is much more evident in the food.

Soup, a de rigeur component of any Chinese meal, yields some interesting options here, such as sliced fish and sour cabbage soup, pumpkin soup or lamb with radish soup. We opted for taro soup, Hunan style. This is a subtly flavored, thickened broth filled with hefty chunks of cooked taro and napa cabbage leaves.

Smoked duck, Hunan−style is a must−order dish here under “Special Recommand” [sic] list of dishes. Don’t be put off by the chili pepper icon next to the menu entry — it’s not spicy. It is a lushly plum half duck with a complex smoky flavor. It is served with a saucer of hoisin sauce. Like Peking duck, only better, but with no pancakes. If you are looking instead for a spicy duck dish, go for special duck, Hunan−style, not marked with a chili pepper, but seriously spicy.

Sliced fish with ginger and scallion sauce is another dish on the “Special Recommand” list erroneously branded spicy. Firm−fleshed sole fillets are surrounded by a decidedly unspicy but flavorful sauce punctuated with shreds of scallion and ginger.

We made a stupid blunder when ordering. Knowing that he was born in Hunan, we couldn’t resist braised pork Mao’s style. We plead temporary amnesia, having forgotten that Chairman Mao sent the great chefs of China to re−education camps during the Cultural Revolution. We got what we deserved — a dish of braised pork belly that was mostly fat. The sauce wasn’t bad, but we couldn’t in good conscience chow down on a dish that would nullify our daily Lipitor intake by some unthinkable multiplier.

Lamb with cumin flavor is a well−known Hunanese dish that shows up on the menus of some mainstream Chinese restaurants. Here it is a firefest of intense flavors and an illustration of what Hunanese cuisine is about. Smoked chicken is another dish along those lines. The chicken is hacked up, bones and all, with diced radish and plenty of red and white chili peppers. White chilies are a specialty of Hunan. Both dishes pack a wallop.

Every so often we spot a dish being enjoyed by ethnic diners that obsesses us until we have the chance to try it. Our waiter informed us that the lotus−leaf−wrapped item that piqued our curiosity was not on the menu. It is called fu zi pork, loosely translated as “gentleman’s cooked pork.” It is slices of pork coated with seasoned sweet rice powder and steamed, wrapped in lotus leaves. “Powder” doesn’t describe the consistency of the rice granules that coat the pork. It is more like rice bulgur. The result is rather bland, with an interesting contrast in texture between the granular coating and the lushly fatty slices of pork.

The Bottom Line

For “gastronauts” eager to extend their vocabularies of Chinese flavors, and display their macho fearlessness of chilies, there is plenty worth exploring at Hunan House. For their more gastronomically timid dining companions, there are enough unchallenging but delicious dishes to keep them happy. Don’t go by the chili icons on the menu for guidance on spiciness — ask the waiter!

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e−mail at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Hunan House

137−40 Northern Blvd.

Flushing, NY 11354

718−353−1808

Price Range: Appetizers $3.95−$11.95; Entrees: $8.95−$19.95; Lunch: Dine in $12.95, Take out $5.95

Cuisine: Hunan Chinese

Setting: Medium sized, no frills Chinese

Service: Efficient, fluent in English, willing to explain and make suggestions.

Hours: Lunch and dinner Daily

Reservations: No

Alcohol: Beer, limited selection

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Music: No

Takeout: Yes

Credit Cards: Yes

Noise Level: Acceptable

Handicap Accessible: Yes

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